What you need to know about AFCNFC East

What you need to know about AFCNFC East

AFC East - What you need to know

New England Patriots (13-3, 513 Points For, lost in Super Bowl): While all three of Tom Brady's titles came in the first half of his career, it's the second act that's been most impressive. He was arguably a game-manager for two of his titles, but he's been the driver of this offense since 2007, grabbing two MVPs along the way (and, as it turns out, a pair of Super Bowl losses). The gravy train should continue in 2012, with well-respected OC Josh McDaniels calling the shots and Brandon Lloyd imported to run deep routes. Opponents are going to have nightmares trying to figure how they cover Lloyd, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker on all passing downs. Gronkowski's 18 touchdowns don't seem repeatable, but his overunder is probably 11.5 or so. He's a safe Top 12-15 pick, and worth considering late in the first round if you miss out on your preferred targets. Stevan Ridley is the most exciting running back on the roster but be careful with the price tag; the Patriots love backfield platoons, so Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead are unlikely to disappear. The Patriots haven't had a star running back since the Corey Dillon days.

New York Jets (8-8, 377 PF):  Although Mark Sanchez collected 32 total touchdowns last year, the New York organization insists on giving him the McKayla Maroney "not impressed" treatment. The club added Tim Tebow in the spring - a gigantic distraction, not to mention a rep-eater in practice - but didn't make major improvements to the skill talent. And the offensive line could be somewhat overrated as well, though the demotion of RT Wayne Turner is a step in the right direction. Santonio Holmes is desperately needed to be the team's No. 1 target, but he's a mercurial type who already has a bunch of nagging summer injuries (back, hamstring, ribs). Rookie Stephen Hill might be good enough to play immediately, so put him on your deep-sleeper list. Shonn Greene hasn't turned into a difference-making back, though the Jets will continue to feed him 15-18 touches in most weeks. At least there's no one special pushing him. If the Jets are going to be a contender in 2012, it will be on the heels of its strong defense. Any opposing No. 1 receiver is a risky play the moment he matches up with shutdown CB Darrelle Revis.  

Buffalo Bills (6-10, 372 PF): The Bills were the NFL's darlings for about one-third of 2011, but injuries to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and running back Fred Jackson wrecked the story around midseason. Everyone is healthy and happy this summer, though, and head coach Chan Gailey is having fun with his creative spread packages. Although Jackson will cede some snaps to third-year runner C.J. Spiller, he's still the fulcrum of the offense and a solid Top 40 selection for fantasy. Stevie Johnson belongs in your Top 20 at wide receiver, despite a focus drop here and there. What would really make this offense sing is a difference maker opposite Johnson; perhaps tight end Scott Chandler will finally see a bump in targets. Buffalo probably won't get into the playoffs, but this could be a very entertaining 8-8 club.

Miami Dolphins (6-10, 329 PF): Give major props to HBO for its Hard Knocks series. The network has somehow made this Dolphins team seem interesting and worth watching. Rookie Ryan Tannenhill knows Mike Sherman's offense well - they were together at Texas A&M - but the kid is also a converted wideout with limited QB experience. Good luck making that work right away. The Miami wideouts are far and away the weakest group in the AFC, and there's no one we'd bother selecting in a standard 10-team league. Maybe Davone Bess crawls his way to 65 receptions, if that matters to you. The backfield does offer two players worth knowing, however: Reggie Bush is an unsexy-but-steady pick, especially in PPR leagues given that he can catch the ball and play in spread formations. And second-year runner Daniel Thomas is a late-round lottery ticket worth considering, a post-hype pick if you will. But this team is going to struggle to score all season, and seems destined for a last-place finish in the division.

NFC East - What you need to know

New York Giants (9-7, 394 Points For, won Super Bowl): Eli Manning's pass attempts have risen for three straight years and he's coming off an 8.4 YPA, best of his career. Forget balance in New York, this is Manning's team now, a pass-first scheme. Hakeem Nicks is recovering quickly from his foot injury - don't worry about picking him in the Top 3-4 rounds - and Victor Cruz looks capable of playing outside the formation as well as he does in the slot. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw is one of the toughest backs in the league, but the laundry list of injuries will take a tax eventually. The Giants selected RB David Wilson in the first round, looking to give Bradshaw a caddy. Holdover D.J. Ware has some skills, too. Bottom line, when you look at Big Blue for fantasy purposes, focus on the passing game. Manning, Nicks and Cruz have been surprisingly affordable in most standard leagues this month.

Philadelphia Eagles (8-8, 396 PF): The Eagles looked like a sneaky breakout pick a couple of months ago, given that they won their last four games last year and don't have gigantic public pressure entering 2012. But if Michael Vick's thumb and rib injuries aren't fully healed by opening day, all bets are off. Vick only scored one rushing touchdown last year after nine the previous campaign; split the difference and you still get a nice fantasy kickback. But expecting a full season from him is a fool's errand; he's done it once in nine pro seasons. LeSean McCoy is an elite running back and worthy of a Top 3 overall pick, though his best game comes as a counter-punch to Vick (scrambling quarterbacks create wide defenses and rushing lanes). Jeremy Maclin is the receiver you want in Philly, more reliable than explosive-but-combustible DeSean Jackson.

Dallas Cowboys (8-8, 369 PF): Under most circumstances we'd be on board with Tony Romo, but everything on this offense seems to be crumbling around him. Jason Witten has a spleen injury (push him out of the Top 10 at tight end), Miles Austin's hamstrings are barking, and Dez Bryant has been a high-maintenance act his entire career. The Dallas offensive line also looks like a hot mess, which limits the buzz for second-year back DeMarco Murray. The Pokes have finally moved on from Felix Jones; he's a secondary piece at most, and isn't even guaranteed to make the team. The Cowboys fantasy defense has some sleeper value, given the presence of sack-master DeMarco Ware.

Washington Redskins (5-11, 288 PF): Ah, the poor Redskins. Even when they do something right, it turns into a rocky road. Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin certainly appears ready to play right away, though Kirk Cousins is also showing a strong camp and has his supporters as well. The money invested in Griffin will secure him the gig, and it's the right choice; don't look for a Cam Newton breakout, but he can be a Top 12-15 fantasy QB right away. The receiving group is surprisingly deep, with Pierre Garcon coming over to team with experienced Santana Moss and intriguing Leonard Hankerson. Tight end Fred Davis is an intermediate threat as well. But forget the backfield, where Mike Shanahan can't be trusted (and several options loom). Roy Helu still looks like the best talent of the lot, but the club seems taken by Evan Royster right now, and Alfred Morris and Tim Hightower complicate the situation.

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After getting another signature win at Maryland, does any Big Ten team have two better conference wins than Minnesota?

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USA TODAY

After getting another signature win at Maryland, does any Big Ten team have two better conference wins than Minnesota?

Does any Big Ten team have two better conference wins than Minnesota?

The Golden Gophers went on the road and defeated a ranked group of Maryland Terrapins on Wednesday night, and they did so in impressive fashion, scoring an 89-75 victory in College Park.

Team this win with the win at Purdue back on New Year's Day, and there's no better pair of league victories to be found.

More importantly though, the Gophers, at 9-6, are now the No. 4 team in the Big Ten standings.

It's all a part of a quality NCAA tournament resume for the Gophers, who are closer to lock status after Wednesday's win than they are to being on any sort of bubble. With mediocrity running rampant through the Big Ten this season, Richard Pitino's 21-win squad should be well on its way to an appearance in next month's Madness, which would be the program's first since he took over as head coach.

The resume looks pretty strong at this point, especially after Wednesday. Minnesota can now claim wins over Purdue, Maryland and Northwestern — all three of those conference victories coming on the road. In the non-conference portion of the schedule, the Gophers beat Arkansas, the Razorbacks seemingly heading to the tournament themselves. The only loss from the non-conference portion came on the road at Florida State, one of the highest-ranked teams in the country.

So it's safe to say Minnesota will go dancing.

Wednesday's 14-point beatdown of the Terps saw the Gophers shoot 50 percent from the field on the night and 54.5 percent from the field in the second half. Five players scored in double figures: Dupree McBrayer with 18, Nate Mason with 17, Akeem Springs with 16, Jordan Murphy with 15 and Amir Coffey with 13. Minnesota didn't win the rebounding battle but scored 15 points off 10 Maryland turnovers and marched to the free-throw line, going 17-for-20 from the charity stripe while Maryland was just 8-for-13 there.

The second half was a rout, the Gophers outscoring the Terps 55-40 over the final 20 minutes and rattling off two separate 9-0 runs to burst away from the No. 24 team in the country.

The overtime win at Purdue on the first day of 2017 might go down as a bigger win considering the Boilermakers are closing in on the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. That win, too, came by an impressive-enough margin, 91-82. But Minnesota dominated Maryland over the final nine minutes or so and turned in a double-digit victory on the road against a team that lost to that same Purdue team on that same court by just a point two and a half weeks ago.

The Gophers are now on a six-game winning streak and are piling up wins in a fashion that's making them look like one of the Big Ten's finest. A 3-1 start to conference play that extended its overall record to 15-2 was dampened by Minnesota's five-game losing streak that featured losses to higher-echelon teams like Michigan State, Wisconsin and Maryland, plus road losses at Penn State and Ohio State. But since have come six straight wins. While the caliber of opponent hadn't been terribly impressive until Wednesday, the Gophers can now boast nine conference wins. Only three teams have more.

It's now worth watching how high Minnesota can climb in the Big Ten standings before the conference tournament just two weeks from now. If the season ended today, the Gophers would already be in possession of one of those highly coveted two-day byes. But Minnesota is just a game back of Maryland and just two games back of Wisconsin, who the Gophers play in the regular-season finale.

Like Pitino told his team after Wednesday's win: "No more talk about (just making) the NCAA tournament. We're talking about seeds in the NCAA tournament."